Invisible to the state during the COVID-19 pandemic: stateless people in Ukraine

Kseniia Karahiaur, Legal Analyst at Right to Protection
/ 5 mins read

As soon as COVID-19 was recognized as a pandemic on 12 March 2020, the Ukrainian Government introduced a quarantine throughout the country. This called for certain administrative and health measures aimed to prevent COVID-19 from spreading: most businesses had to stop their work; access to public places and institutions was limited and non-essential movement of people was restricted. Administrative penalties were also introduced for the violation of quarantine rules. Since late May, the Government has started to gradually lift restrictions.

Access to healthcare and impact of COVID-19 on stateless people 

Stateless people and those at risk of statelessness, as well as people without identity documents have limited access to social services and medical care (see more on the ENS StatelessnessINDEX). Without identity documents, a person cannot register with a family doctor. This makes it impossible to receive primary care and other types of medical care.

The results of Right to Protection’s survey among stateless people conducted in April-May 2020 demonstrate that 92% (175 out of 189 people surveyed) of stateless people do not have a family doctor. Almost half of them were denied registering (ie. signing a declaration with a family doctor) due to lack of an identity document. Children of stateless parents who are over 14 years of age are able to sign a declaration regardless of their parents’ identity documents, but 68% of those who have children and answered the question (38 of 56 respondents) reported that their children did not have a signed declaration with a doctor.

What causes the most concern, is that there is almost no access to health services for stateless people who have chronic diseases or disabilities. Diseases like diabetes, cancer, and tuberculosis are not treated. People without documents cannot participate in State programs, receive free medicines, have access to medical examinations (otherwise free of charge), or establish their disability. In most cases, they do not have any money to cover the cost of medicines. Undocumented people are hospitalised only in case of emergency. 17% (32 respondents) of those interviewed by Right to Protection reported having a disability, chronic condition or cancer.

At the same time, people with chronic condition or disabilities as well as elderly people are at increased risk of COVID-19 related complications. Although the local authorities declared a non-discriminatory approach to treatment of COVID-19, there is an obvious danger of late diagnosis caused by the absence of primary medical care to stateless people. 

Surviving without work and social benefits

Among Right to Protection’s beneficiaries, the overwhelming majority are from socially vulnerable groups: elderly people living alone, homeless people, people released from prison, Roma, and residents of temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Due to lack of identity documents, it is difficult for stateless people to find work and support themselves (or a family). At the same time, it is impossible to obtain state social protection. Those without documents cannot receive a pension, which is why elderly people can find themselves in poverty.

While the quarantine is intended to prevent the spread of the epidemic, it has a negative impact on the social and economic wellbeing of stateless people, as confirmed by the participants in our survey. Most work in the informal economy: only 1 respondent is officially employed, and 1 is an entrepreneur. 57% (61 respondents) of respondents who had worked before quarantine became unemployed due to the introduction of lockdown restrictions.

This situation led to rather acute consequences - 31% (58 respondents) said that their resources would not be enough even for food until the end of quarantine (as of the date of the poll the quarantine was announced to last until April 24). About half of those surveyed said that they will have enough money, but only for food. 73% (139 respondents) of those surveyed require humanitarian assistance, mainly: medicines and medical supplies, food and hygiene items. 4% (eight respondents) of the people surveyed do not have access to clean drinking water.

Individuals without identity documents are not entitled to social support from local authorities, which other vulnerable individuals who have identity documents may receive. This makes them totally invisible to the authorities. The only form of help they can receive is humanitarian assistance provided by international and national charities.

Possible solutions

Right to Protection is calling for the immediate provision of medical care to stateless people during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the increased attention of local authorities to problems facing undocumented people. However, our long-term call is for the regularisation of stateless people in Ukraine, who find themselves in this situation not only because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A person with a nationality can find a job, access medical and social services, be a full member of society, marry and bestow the same rights to their children. A stateless individual in Ukraine is denied such rights. Thus, the problem goes much deeper than the impacts of COVID-19 and requires legislative changes.

As of 2020, UNHCR estimates that there are more than 35,600 stateless persons and persons at risk of statelessness in Ukraine. In 2019, only 5,642 had a stateless person residence permit. A significant reason why stateless people in Ukraine are not able to regularise their status is because of the absence of a statelessness determination procedure in Ukraine. Currently, a draft law (#2335) which would propose the establishment of a statelessness determination procedure is waiting in parliament. The adoption of the law and the establishment of a formal mechanism to identify and determine people’s status would resolve multiple problems related to statelessness in Ukraine. If stateless people are granted a legal identity, they could be included in and benefit from government programs, including those addressing the consequences of COVID-19 and mitigating the risk of its further spread.

Photo credit: Photo-project “Photo on the Passport” by Oleksandr Chekmenev, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)


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